What happens when you graduate in Hong Kong - and can't speak Chinese?
When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the government decreed that students be taught in Chinese, not English. But thousands of minorities were suddenly left in the lurch, say activists.
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The city’s education bureau disagrees: “Since the parents choose to send their children to the designated schools, that doesn’t constitute discrimination. And we believe our Chinese curriculum is suitable for all learners,” says a spokesperson.Skip to next paragraph
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According to government figures, more than one-third of the city's nearly 40,000 minority children, mostly from working class families, enroll in the designated schools only because they are failing in a Cantonese teaching environment.
At the designated schools, students learn Chinese only up to about the third grade-equivalent level because such schools are equipped to prepare the students to take only public exams administered by Britain, which has lower standards of Chinese fluency. As it is, only one in five South Asians public high school graduates read and write Chinese; most are relegated to low-skill jobs or unemployment.
Seeking to end what they see as long-standing inequity, both Unison and the city's Equal Opportunities Commission say they may take legal action if education officials don't make an effort soon to design a curriculum appropriate for the minorities – one that would help them achieve proficiency comparable to that of their Chinese peers.
Yusuf Yu, former principal of a designated school, spent most of his career contending with the lack of appropriate curricula. Until he retired two months ago, he had to improvise in order to help minority students master more advanced Chinese. Minorities account for more than 90 percent of the school’s population of 500.
“Right now it's up to the individual principals to decide how far the students get to go with their Chinese learning,” says Mr. Yu. “The victims ultimately are the students.”
Determined not to be a victim
Although Aftab, now 22, aced Chinese at his designated school, he couldn’t even decipher street signs in Chinese. Determined not to be a victim of the city’s segregated education system, he learned to speak Cantonese fluently from TV and friends at the public housing development where he grew up.
Having worked as Cantonese-Urdu interpreter, Aftab recently joined the police department as a community liaison. This position may give him a shot at joining the force, like the fathers and grandfathers of some of his peers. Indeed, many South Asians in the city descend from those brought in by the British circa 1850 to form the fledgling colony’s first police force.
Aftab and his family are pooling their resources to make sure his niece learns to read and write Chinese proficiently. They say they don’t count on the government to give minorities a fair chance at achieving Chinese literacy.
While Aftab has managed to beat the odds, scholars say full Chinese proficiency for ethnic minorities should be the norm rather than the exception.
"Chinese language learning at publicly funded schools should ensure that all students can achieve a standard that allows for equal access to opportunities in all areas of life," says Ms. Loper.